SUN CITY CENTER
A silver vase has turned black. The copper wiring behind the light switches have corroded, too.
But Eloise Lewis' gold rings were her first clue that contaminated drywall was used to build her new home. Not long after the 82-year-old moved into her two-bedroom, two-bath house on the lake in 2006, all her gold rings turned a strange dark orange color.
"And these are not cheapo rings," Lewis said. "These are rings from Tiffany's and places like that. It had never happened before."
Then one by one, televisions and her microwave stopped working. Almost three years later, a work crew confirmed that she was one of nearly 100 Sun City Center homeowners with tainted drywall.
A total of 80 homes built in 2006 and 2007 have tested positive so far, leaving stressed owners wondering what will come next. Together, they've formed the Contaminated Drywall Coordinating Group and hired a lawyer.
They hope to get part of a corporate insurance trust created when Sun City Center builder WCI recently filed for bankruptcy. But with little help from the state and federal government, these retirees fear nothing will be done.
"We are people who have put everything into a home, thinking this is it, this is our retirement," said Roy Glaum, a member of the drywall committee. "Many people here only have so much money to live on, and then they're told it could cost them upwards of $100,000 to fix a home that has already lost its value."
Throughout Hillsborough County, about 360 homes have been found to have tainted drywall, Glaum said. And while the Property Appraiser's Office has helped to reduce the taxes homeowners have to pay on affected homes, there are little options for most people who can't afford the expensive remediation, he said.
He said Sun City Center residents don't qualify for funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which are mostly aimed at poorer residents. What's more, federal money can't be used for condominiums.
Without any where else to go, most residents continue to live in their homes despite the toxic gases.
"I don't have the money to do the work on my home, or go anywhere else for that matter," Lewis said. "And it's not just me that's worried. My neighbors who don't have contaminated drywall are worried about the values of their homes, too."
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For residents like Mildred Ballard, a compromised immune system forced her out of her dream home. After renovating an older condominium she moved into in 2001, the widow decided it was time to live it up.
She purchased a three-bedroom, two-bath residence in Toscana, a newly developed phase of Sun City Center in 2008. She loved the open layout and the dark wood floors throughout. The lanai overlooking the lake was perfect for breakfast every morning, and the black and cream-colored motif she chose to decorate expressed her elegant style.
But not long after moving in, she noticed a strange scent in the garage. Her eyes always watered, and she woke up most mornings feeling like she had a cold, though the doctor always told her otherwise.
A year later, Ballard moved back into her old condo when crews confirmed that she, too, had tainted drywall.
"I'm angry," she said. "I feel seniors are not valued. I've worked hard to help our children become worthwhile citizens … all five have master's degrees. I would like to leave them something, but if I died I would be leaving them with a big mess."
To help residents cope with the stress of waiting for help, the drywall group has been referring them to the Sun City Center Mental Health Coalition. That association tried to create a support group, but found that most residents weren't comfortable with openly speaking about their problems.
The effect is isolation, Glaum said. Some residents have told him that they'd like to have parties, but will only invite others with tainted drywall for fear they might get sued. Others said that they cry at least a half-hour every day.
To get by, Lewis tries to focus on her Maltese, Tiffany, for humor. Or she sits outside to watch the wildlife flutter around the lake. It's like having a Corvette, but feeling like she can drive only 2 miles per hour, she said.
And sometimes that's just too overwhelming.
"You see those pictures?" she asked, pointing to a collage of family photos neatly arranged on a wall in her bedroom. "It took me hours and hours to figure out exactly where I wanted those and then to finally put them up. If we do get help and someone comes in, sure they can move all of this stuff out and take those pictures down.
"But who's going to put them back up for me?"
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or 661-2454.